In 2016 we were lucky to have artist and writer Amy Feiereisel as one of our Resident Assistants. Inspired by her experiences in Sicily, she wrote a collection of short stories, The Town on the Hill: Stories from Sicily during her time in Tusa. She has been generous enough to allow us to share a selection of these stories here on our blog. The entire collection of nine stories is also available in print here: https://www.amazon.com/Town-Hill-Stories-Sicily/dp/1520841949. We will begin at the beginning with the story Coming and Going:
Coming and Going
The town was full of buildings for sale. The buildings were of all sorts; homes, churches, stables, and once gilded palazzos that crumbled from floor to floor until the sturdy stone shells cradled nonexistent ballrooms. The people were old. No babies were born. The younger residents came back to visit their relatives and eat nostalgic food and sigh about how the immortal bar with the hanging jasmine tendrils was now for sale too, about how they had made eyes at the other adolescents in their youth. But finally there were no youths left to make eyes, and not enough paying customers to make the bar worth running.
The only businesses in town were the grocery stores, the butcher and the cheesemaker, the hardware stores to supply building material to the rich summer people from up north who throw their hands up at the crumbling palazzos and build gaudy bright residences from scratch outside town. The bank had been robbed recently, and they caught one of the men, who everyone said must be from Palermo. His two accomplices ran into the woods on the edge of town after being chased through the town cemetery, and haven’t been seen since. No one was too worried by them. As one man said, “They weren’t armed, or someone would have been killed.”
The women did their shopping between ten and noon each morning, which is when the shops bustled with activity and smiles were given like gifts. But once they disappeared into shadowed kitchens to make the mid-day meal, the men occupied the streets and it was uncomfortable to be a woman in town, especially alone. When female visitors are invited to visit, often American relatives with cousins in the area, they are a spectacle, a disgrace, and welcome entertainment. They do not stay very long.
This is how I found the town when I came to it.
But it was beautiful too, in the way only a dying thing can be. Not romantic in any traditional sense, but romantic in the loneliness of a long and beautifully laid street, totally empty. Romantic in the way the trash is put out on hooks, so that the thriving cat population (perhaps the only thing thriving in this particular place) cannot reach it. At midnight the warmly lit streets were full of gently swaying, neatly tied trash bags slipped onto sharp hooks suspended by rope from balconies. Nothing compares to the sight. The weather was unpredictable, the way it is in the mountains located just above the sea, and the light magnificent, richer than any other I’d seen.
I had been invited to the Professor’s house for a dinner of eggplant pasta with ricotta salata, the dishes he always served to company, accompanied by the same kitchen show, “Do you see the cover of that magazine? They took that picture at the chef’s restaurant, but we’re going to make it much better here, right now. Now grab the tomato sauce…” And I expected the stories he told while we ate (about the pasta’s birth in Paris, about the pitfalls of liberalism, about the Italian opera set in Scotland) to be recounted just as they always were.
But the professor, for once, was less interested in talking about himself and demonstrating his intellect. He’d had a hard week. A friend visiting from far away had been held up in several airports and the phone lines in the town were all down – the stress of wondering and worrying had taken its toll. Then when the friend had arrived, things hadn’t gone exactly like the professor might have wanted.
Another classmate from junior high had died (not suddenly, but still), and the Professor had dressed up in his nicest cotton shirt and wool slacks and smart jacket to attend the funeral. He was somber afterwards and didn’t change out of his nice clothes immediately. He forgot or chose to ignore the regular dusting of his ceramic dining room chandelier.
This time when he spoke, he spoke softly and contemplatively. He smiled as he remembered:
There was a couple who were not a couple at all. The woman had been married, but her husband was dead. She owned a bar, and it was not looked upon badly, for she was a widow after all. The man was a master carpenter who now directed his son in their mutual endeavors, as his eyes had started to fail the winter prior, and his hands shook slightly when he held anything. He had a tuft of snowy hair that always stood up on the left side of his part, which was strange, considering his maniacal tidiness observed by everyone all his life.
The woman and man had been high school sweethearts, and it had been generally believed they would marry. But the woman chose a slightly older and wealthier man at the mature age of 17, and her sweetheart had never really forgiven her. When her husband died she opened a bar only three buildings and a stationary shop away from his workspace. It had been forty years since the opening, and every day at 11:30, the man set down his tools to walk over to the bar and order a drink. Nowadays he barked at a local boy (the Professor in his childhood) to grab a hold of his arm and walk him down the street. He ordered his drink and she brought it to him, and he sipped it as they traded barbs.
“You whore, that dress doesn’t become you in the least.”
“I pity a man like you, a sack of skin and bones, blind and helpless.”
“You smell worse than a mountain goat, and you’re less handsome than one, too.”
“I pray you collapse of a heart attack, but not within my eyesight so I needn’t deal with your body. Take a walk over the hill, and get trampled by the boars.”
“I hope you live forever, you old hag, so you might torture your own kin with your dreadful, insufferable presence.”
And so it went on, and on and on, until the glass was empty and the noon bells rang, and the man made his way back up the street. What they said to one another was shocking to strangers, but it was also something else. If the man was late, the woman would come searching for him, wringing her hands. As soon as he was located and his health determined fair, she launched into a dizzying tirade against him and his lazy ass, but with a certain tenderness lacing the assault. The man sent his grandson to explain what had happened to him once when he was ill and could not come. The woman sent back a scathing note and a crock of soup and a dried sausage, which she told him to choke on, so that it might finish him off.
It was love, but uncompleted. Love of the best and longest and most stimulating kind, and the two never tired of it. The Professor saw something noble in the interaction, something pure, and something he approved of immensely.
I asked what became of the couple, and the Professor sighed.
“Dead, of course.”
All the great people were dead, and only the wicked had survived. The way things always were and would always be.
When I left a few weeks later I was undecided on whether or not I would be back.
The most romantic and terribly beautiful thing of all was in the way the people lit up when they spoke of their childhoods and of any time that came before the present one. It was a beauty hard to experience and impossible to stand. They couldn’t help it, but it was driving everyone out.